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7 Strategies for Resilient Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
May 11, 2020

The COVID-19 virus has left its mark on each of us and at some level, we are all left feeling a bit more vulnerable. To navigate these uncertain times, resilient leadership is one of our most valuable tools.

Barriers to Resilience

Research has shown that when we are under stress, our capacity to learn is blocked. In essence, fear shuts us down. When we’re faced with uncertainty or when we’re under pressure, our default is to turn to what we know. In stressful and complex situations, we tend to seek shelter in the comfort zone of our old routines. Unfortunately, those old solutions won’t necessarily help us address the new challenges we’re experiencing. Instead of letting fear guide our responses, we have the option to tap into—and leverage—our resilience.

In some ways, resilience can be thought of as being optimistic in the way you think of and define any situation. Being optimistic in even the most difficult of circumstances keeps fear at bay. It’s not to say that you should look only at the positive while maintaining blissful ignorance of anything negative. Excessive confidence and optimism can contribute to a loss of credibility; however, by combining confidence in the future with a bit of realism, you can provide valuable leadership to those around you.

Growth Mindset

When thinking about resilience, the language and the words you use are incredibly important because they serve a key role in framing your perspective. As leaders being faced with unprecedented situations, instead of reverting to our comfort zones, we need to be willing to try new things. It takes courage for a leader to say, “I don’t know.” By acknowledging we don’t have a tried-and-true answer at the ready, we provide space for curiosity and reflection.

We also promote an environment where decisions can be made more strategically, with an eye to where we want to be. Adopting a growth mindset requires a shift in thinking where a challenge is re-framed as an opportunity. It’s tempting to focus on being overwhelmed (a legitimate feeling) and stressed about not having enough information to know what to do (also very legitimate). But if you’re the leader and you get stuck there, those feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed will surely permeate to your staff.

Instead, a growth mindset is a way of creating for yourself a space of deliberate calm, where you temporarily detach yourself from the situation to think clearly about the best course of action. By making an intentional shift in how you choose to approach the situation, you can help your team pivot and transform the way they respond to current challenges.

Strategies for Resilient Leadership

As you look for effective ways to support yourself and your team in navigating unfamiliar circumstances, you may want to consider these following seven strategies:

  1. Use data and feedback. When faced with making difficult decisions, remember that both staff and clients can provide you with valuable insights that can be blended with your own experiences.
  2. Decision paralysis is real. Have confidence in yourself and your team as you encounter complex decisions. Embrace the advice of Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But by all means, try something.”
  3. Create clear goals. It will help your team maintain focus amid the chaos and will help them manage stress. When possible, help them make the connection between what you’re doing with the priorities and purpose of the organization.
  4. In the moment learning. As you encounter new situations, embrace the opportunity to learn in the moment. Navigating the complexity of constantly changing business operations isn’t something that most of us were trained to do. But when you are able to say, “I don’t know,” you embrace an opportunity to learn.
  5. Distribute authority. When you are willing to delegate, you accomplish several things simultaneously. Done correctly, delegating takes stress off of you while providing an opportunity for someone on your team to develop their skills. It shows that you trust them and conveys the message that you need them in order to succeed.
  6. It’s been said that in the absence of information, people will generate their own. To minimize gossip and ungrounded speculations, share the information that you have and support a safe environment where staff can freely express their ideas, questions and concerns.
  7. Assess/Anticipate/Update. When faced with making a decision, give yourself a moment to pause and think it through. When possible, try to anticipate what could happen next. And as new information becomes available, update your decisions so that your new insights are incorporated into what you’ve learned from past experiences.

Conclusion

The only thing we know for sure is that the future is uncertain. Uncertain times call for resilient leaders. Incorporating these seven strategies will support behaviors and mindsets that will help you be a more resilient leader and more effectively lead your team through this crisis.


Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding top leadership and management positions. As a practitioner and a scholar, her focus is on leadership development, organizational effectiveness, and financial accountability. She is the owner of Townsend Consulting and can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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